Mephisto’s Waltz


Mexican writer Sergio Pitol (right) with Spanish publisher Jorge Herralde.

For Juan Villoro

When she opened her handbag in search of her creams, the blue silk pajamas that her sister Beatriz had bought for her in India and that were so comfortable, her slippers, and a bottle of sleeping pills, the magazine fell at her feet (she could have sworn she had put in the black suitcase!), only to upset her again and render the possibility of rest even more doubtful. She thought again about the coincidence which, that very morning, when she tried for the hundredth time to persuade Beatriz of the damage to her marriage, not to mention her certainty that Guillermo was of the same opinion, and insisted that the truce had allowed them to know the sober pleasure of living apart, caused her brother-in-law to come to deliver the magazine in which “Mephisto’s Waltz” appeared, which indirectly seemed to corroborate her arguments, the echo of which she had not been able to rid herself all day.

She had planned not to read it again until she was properly settled into her home, after a bath, breakfast, and some rest. But how could she resist the temptation when the magazine had fallen back into her hands? So once she was settled into the berth, her hair brushed, swaddled in her cherished blue pajamas, the sedative taken, she read it again, and that second reading not only bothered her but caused her inordinate distress when, amid the repeated screeching of the wheels, she encountered Guillermo's voice again, its rhythm and diction, his gasping breath, managing even to perceive the pauses as he inhaled and exhaled the cigarette smoke. She read it without interruption; it was a very short text. A mixture of rage and spite began to take hold, insinuating to her, that by clinging to those harsh feelings, she would be able to avoid the anguish. She repeated to herself that the natural thing would have been for her to receive this story, as usual, so that she could deliver it for publication; so far as she remembers, as long as they had been known each other, even before getting married, when they were scarcely a pair of gay but somewhat ghastly students in the Faculty of Philosophy, which she is so fond of recalling, he had not published anything she had not first read, commented on, and discussed with him. Yes, it was possible that in Vienna he had arrived at the same conclusions that she had tried to make his sister understand that morning, and that the publication of that “Waltz,” without the slightest warning, was his way of announcing it to her. A challenge? Perhaps not, but rather a polite way of telling her that things were no longer the same between them.

All the grievances on which he had ruminated at her sister's house (to which the latter did not seem to give the slightest importance) during the last week in Veracruz. On second reading, the sense of danger was more acute. Something that existed in the background of the story, the final meditation on a series of small dramatic nuclei that were on the verge of crystallizing, of developing their own laws, of finally taking shape: minimal stories nurtured in the most rampant clichés of a fin de siècle décadentisme, hungry for gimcrack and tinsel (the shapely curves of a woman whose excesses lead to death, the ritual supply of poison, the criminal attraction of music, for example), yes, that meditation that, as a postface of an authentic drama espied by chance, was nothing more than the evidence of Guillermo's disinterest in the reality in which she was grounded, made her think that in the conversations with Beatriz she had not known, or perhaps—and why not?—she hadn’t wanted dig too deep and therefore had been so easily refuted and deserving of charges of incoherence, capriciousness, and superficiality, for fear of confronting in earnest a situation that was almost impossible for her to explain. Perhaps her sister was right when she claimed that the only thing was having let behind the age when starting the day, any day, could take on a playful character, an exceptional adventure, which she accepted as if it were the most natural thing in the world, but that Guillermo, on the other hand, refused to admit.

What she had found attractive in her husband fifteen years ago began to exasperate her such that, as the end of his sabbatical approached, she began to grow uneasy, to dread his return, to repeat to herself that the separation had been necessary because, in this way, she had discovered, painlessly and without worries, that the state of permanent exaltation in which he intended to live frightened and exhausted her, that he could not devote himself to his work with her by his side with the same passion solitude afforded him (the monograph on Agustín Lazo had taken him only half a year; she doesn’t dare think of how long it would have taken him to prepare it with her at his side!), and, perhaps, but at that moment the very idea makes her shudder!, the fact that in none of his letters had he alluded to that story meant that Guillermo had long since arrived at the same conclusion and that they found themselves, not merely on the doorstep, as she believed, but well on their way to divorce. It was one thing to talk to her sister about that possibility; it was another to come face to face with the evidence. Her heart began to beat with so erratically that she had to get up to take another sedative. Even from the other side of the ocean—which was truly indecent!—Guillermo was able to cause her such fits. For fifteen, seventeen, twenty years, the same thing had always happened: tacit but unreasonable demands, tensions whose cause could only be found in the realm of hypotheses, lingering depressions that filled her with a vague sense of guilt.

Guillermo was accustomed to dating everything he wrote. This is how she was able to know that the story had been written eight months ago, that is to say shortly after settling in Vienna. He had not—of this she was very sure—ever written a line about it to her. She didn’t even know that he had busied himself in anything other than his essay on Schnitzler, to which he often alluded. In one of his last letters he spoke enthusiastically of a story about Casanova; he insisted that when she read it, she would change her mind about the author (about whom, on the other hand, he scarcely knew anything) and she would stop reproaching him for not having chosen as his subject Hofmannsthal (of whose work, outside a few opera librettos, he was entirely ignorant, though, for all the erudite references it possessed—his collaboration with Strauss, essays by Broch, Curtius, and Mann—he did find it considerably more attractive).

What she is sure of is that he alluded in some letter to the concert that clearly serves as the story’s foundation. She remembers it because he insisted that it was the same David Divers they had heard in Paris when he had ceased to be a prodigious teenager and become a great musician. Her memory captures not so much the boy’s talent as his beauty.

There is in the story (she opens the magazine, looks for the paragraph to convince herself of its existence, and, once she confirms it, sighs contentedly) a passing reference to the concert they both attended in Paris after getting married, which verifies that her doldrums have been such that even this minute sign is enough for the moment to make her feel honored. The narrator (because Guillermo creates a distance between himself and his narrative, through the narrator, Mexican like him, and also like him a resident for a brief period in Vienna) refers to the concert in which he first heard the pianist and remembers that, at the moment he stood to express gratitude for the applause, his wife—yes, she, who is lying in the berth of a railroad car, is traveling from Veracruz to Mexico and is reading a literary magazine—, upon seeing the pianist’s temples bathed in sweat, commented (although at the moment she is reading, she is almost certain that she did not say such a thing) that the effect of those drops that were rolling down his temples and bathing his cheeks made her think of the face of a young faun that had just made love.

Once she had located the quotation, she began to reread the story from the beginning and was able to enjoy the beauty of certain phrases, to weave together the threads, to notice that the anecdote, as in almost everything he wrote, was a mere pretext to establish a web of associations and reflections that explained the meaning that for him made up the very act of narrating. In his first stories, the associations were freer, an outflow of images and events held together in general by a deep suture and whose connection the reader was not able to notice until the reading was well underway; in the later ones, the discourse zigzagged along a slower and more deliberate course, where the echo of certain German, and especially Austrian, authors who had been enthusiastic since his student years was deliberately allowed to be felt. In recent times, he only wrote essays. Hence, too, her surprise at the appearance of this story.

Nothing Guillermo has ever written has left her satisfied after a first reading. There exists in her a need to play devil’s advocate to her husband, to look for errors, to detect inconsistencies, to diagnose weak spots and fattiness in his prose. That is why he valued her as a reader. She, for example, would have blurred the figure of Catalan woman who appears in one of the stories. She senses an excess of curves, roundness, an overly-full figure that evokes for her hips like amphorae and breasts like the mascarons of excessively baroque buildings. There is an obsession with brocades, velvets and lace, of “Veronesery,” as she exclaimed once after having had enough, which always annoys her about his female characters, and which that say she perceives as a way to combat the challenge to her short hair, her small breasts, her narrow hips, her linear style of dress.

The story may not be memorable; her husband abandons it just when it begins to interest her the most. How does one compare, she says to herself, that set of assumptions that always border on the parodic to the real drama of the old man and the pianist, which he so arrogantly dismisses? The beginning was a kind of musical chronicle of the concert of a famous soloist in the main hall of the Vienna Conservatory. The first part of the program was composed of Sonata in B Minor and Liszt’s Mephisto-Waltzer; the second half consisted exclusively of Études by Chopin. The narrator describes the Sonata, for which Guillermo must have used the information from the program or extracted it from a popularizing book of music or a biography of Liszt, considering, as unbelievable as it may seem, his knowledge of that field was non-existent, and he was never able to identify the simplest chord. Even though for years they may have gone regularly to concerts and apparently (which she doesn’t merely imagine possible but rather is convinced that it is in fact true) enjoy them, neither attendance nor the pleasure it offers has been able to sharpen his ear at all. On one occasion, they heard Richter play in Rome Schumann’s Carnaval, thanks to a friend of her mother who was passing through the city, who, after moving heaven and earth, managed to get three tickets that cost their weight in gold but at the last moment preferred to see the film of an artist whom she worshiped and to whom, according to her husband’s secretary, she bore a striking resemblance. They went with Ignazio, and she remembers the occasion as one of the few during her marriage in which she could not contain herself when, with the glibness of an expert, Guillermo declared that Richter had definitely messed up the Schumann despite the ovation delivered by a multitude of ignorant bourgeois, that he had played it militarily, almost as if it were a march, that German Romanticism was very different, that it had infinite layers that the pianist hadn’t even grasped, and she was still under the spell that the concert had cast on her, let out a “please, Guillermo, stop talking such nonsense,” which plunged him into a dark, resentful silence while they were at the Trattoria del Trastevere where Ignazio had taken them. It was an exceptional situation. As a rule, he waits for her to set the tone, to say the first words, those that contain the key, and then, with great coherence, and perhaps even brilliance, he elaborates a series of reflections on the subject. It amuses him when he enters his studio and finds her listening to a record; he’s always quick to ask what it is, and if it is something that would embarrass him not to recognize (when in truth, if it’s not the Polonaise, the Emperor, Mahler's First or Beethoven's Fifth, he’s usually lost) she answers in a casual tone, scarcely raising her eyes from the typewriter or the book in which she’s buried at the moment: “Caesar Franck’s Symphony, of course!” or “the Mozart flute concerto you like so much!” and he feints concentrating until he recognizes this or that melodic phrase, which he mutters under his voice, then satisfied continues his task and even enjoys the music during those moments here and there when he is even aware of its presence. Upon remembering all this, as she reads what he has written about the structural complexity of the Sonata in B Minor, “so assailed at the time, repudiated even by Schumann himself, despite being, according to contemporaneous studies, the most extraordinary pianistic monument of his time,” she becomes filled with bonhomie and with affection towards the man who isn’t there.

The narrator, a young Mexican literato by the name of Manuel Torres, arrives at the soloist’s concert, who, in the story, instead of Divers is named Gunther Prey. He has obtained, who knows by what means, a front-row seat, a short distance from the piano. The sparkle of the hall, the stiffness of the audience, their religious awe at the music all affect him, but above all the artist’s attitude. The young man seems to have a blood, almost umbilical, relationship with the piano. At moments the exact relationship to his instrument and to the sounds he extracts from it makes him seem almost inhuman. Manuel Torres begins to write notes on the program's blank page, thinking that they may be of some use to him in the future. He has this habit. He has made notes on all kinds of papers, on restaurant menus, bills, on whatever piece of paper that has fallen into his hands, only to invariably lose them in a few days, in a few hours, sometimes at the very moment he leaves the place where he has taken them. He jots down something about the pianist's remoteness, the magnetism he gives off, the sobriety of the gestures, the strength of his chin, the way his cheekbones descend then drown in his mouth before being reborn on tiny, cruel lips, which makes one think of a greyhound, a greyhound with a tough of feline, yes, a greyhound who was at the same time a cat from Egypt. She, who vaguely recalls the figure described, finds the drawing absurd and confusing, the usual trap in which men fall when they want to say that one of their male protagonists is beautiful. Blessed Tolstoy, she says to herself, recalling an argument with her brother-in-law, who, without any inhibition—and any suspicion—describes with joyful ease Vronsky's lips, his teeth, or his waist!

Suddenly something catches Torres’s attention. It’s possible that a furtive gesture from the pianist has directed his gaze towards a box located at the right side of the theater, just above the stage. At first glance the stage may seem empty, but if you look closely it’s possible to discern a figure in the background, a man sitting in such a way that only four or five spectators from the first row, including him, notice his presence. It is a face that is vaguely familiar to him. His eyes follow the performance of the pianist as in a hypnotic trance. There is something tragic about the way the old man hears Prey play the Mephisto Waltz. At that moment, the pianist’s presence all but vanishes for Torres. He begins to wonder about the magnetism with which the virtuoso’s erratic hands attract those eyes, so fixed that they seem to wish to immobilize them. He notes in the program:

a) a military grandfather who attempts a reconciliation with his grandson;

b) a maestro about to die who tries to find in that concert a possible meaning to his life.

He imagines a solitary grandfather, a retired soldier who observes how his only descendent produces the magic that brings five hundred people together, by virtue of his hands, in an orbit on the margin of all possibility. He enthusiastically opposed his career and raised every kind of obstacle including a violent quarrel that caused the young man to flee, which brought him more pain than the death of his children. With the fullness of time, he began to seek a reconciliation that everyone, he most of all, considered, until a few months ago, unachievable, a fact of which, at a certain moment during the performance, he becomes sorely aware. The young man’s furtive look, the very one that Torres discovered, and which piqued his interest in the box, looks to be the beginning of a challenge. Every chord of the Waltz is contemptuous, scornful, mocking. The old general realizes that there is no possible bridge, that he can never forgive his grandson for having descended into that world of minstrels, sorcerers, and clowns, who offends everything that sustains him. There is a violent struggle of abstractions, which dissolve into the uniform he still wears to attend certain ceremonies, into the crosses that he pins to his chest with a trembling hand, in the massive sword that he contemplates at times with a veiled glance in opposition to those that flood his grandson’s soul, which he flings in his face with ferocious virtuosity. Hence the boy’s mocking and defiant expression and the old man’s hostile but barbarously veiled frown. But for Torres this drama would become simply a story of a conflict between generations; he’s ignorant of the workings of the military soul; he could never write from inside the story he has in mind; he’d become bogged down in unfamiliar terrain that would make it very difficult for his imagination to begin its march.

And if he were a teacher? A teacher about to succumb, ravaged by cancer, who with great difficulty has risen from the rickety bed where he lies moribund, to go to hear for the last time the pupil in whom he feels fulfilled, whose training removed him from everything that in a certain moment made him believe he was important: his personal career, fame, his other pupils, a wife, two nieces, and whose performance that night justifies his life and allows him to await peacefully a death that he knows to be inevitable and immediate. Although agnostic, in that instant, he beseeches the miracle of dying there, in the box, before hearing the last note of the Mephisto. He no longer wishes to confer with his disciple, what he desires least is to converse with him to ask why he accentuated the jeering tone that he sensed in his performance of the piece. He prefers to think that it is a sort of tribute, consolation; a message that signals to him that, in the face of art, any personal drama is insignificant, that Liszt died, and his work continues, that he himself will die and then the virtuoso performer, but not before there are new notes that will surprise new ears; that love, misfortune, oblivion are mere words. But the tone of ridicule spills out, and in doing so awakens him (and then his astonishment is immense!) to the realization that nothing makes or has made sense, not even music, that his life has been nothing but a wretched joke, that the pain he suffers in his left side that renders breathing all but impossible is also part of that unholy joke, and he has a desire to abolish the world that in that instant are but a pair of hands that fly across the keyboard, mocking him, his dying, his left side, but also the music emanating from them and Liszt and whatever inspiration that may enliven man. He should like to stand and shout that everything and nothing is the same; above all, he should like to die in order to rip out the terror of that moment. But Torres knows that taking that route would not get him very far.

Suddenly, he stumbles upon another possibility more suitable for the development of what has come to be called his style. He scribbles in the program:

c) Barcelona, ​​Palau de la Música. Effects of Art Nouveau; prolongation or, rather, revivification of an instant by way of music. He struggles ceaselessly to keep the memory alive of the story of a few days… those that preceded (and culminated in) a crime.

The action would transpire in Barcelona, ​​because it is a place he knows well, and although it doesn’t require the exterior of the city at all, the parallel atmosphere of certain paintings, of a certain ornamental feeling, the ties between the Viennese Sezessionstil and Catalan Modernisme provide the tone of interiors required. He can almost see the furniture in a spacious apartment, the lamps with lampshades of thick cretonnes, the pink stucco of the walls, the quality of the velvet of the curtains. A young biologist discovers after a few months of marriage that, beneath the placid and somewhat vacuous façade behind which his wife is hiding, a lava flows that reduces her to ash and delivers her to unspeakable practices under the tutelage of an Italian Don Juan. On one occasion, when returning from Figueras, where he spends several days a week doing research in his father's laboratories, he comes to know in a roundabout way certain details that lead him to discover the blaggardesque plot that has been staged at home. He knows that his wife, and this is what torments him, will never be able to love him, that their marriage has served her only as a cover to continue a life that was increasingly difficult in his parents' home. He decides to experiment on her with vegetable toxicant that he has received from Luzon, on whose properties he is working at the moment. The effect will be slow. begins to administer the potion regularly; he watches her decline slowly, which reveals to him a fear that, of course, he feels, but for different reasons; he inquires about her health, takes her pulse at the most unexpected moments, recommends rest, that she spend several hours a day in bed, take some tranquilizers; he makes inquiries to his in-laws about past illnesses; he speaks to some colleagues, invites a well-known specialist to visit and examine her. The results are to be expected: the cardiologist recommends radical measures, one cannot say anything with absolute confidence, the clinical profile is extremely complicated, the only thing that could be said is that the symptoms are not at all encouraging, there is a marked cardiac decompensation. She must be submitted to a strict treatment regimen. Anyone can see that the woman is expiring. During the afternoons, he rises, sits at the piano, and invariably plays Mephisto’s Waltz which, he knows, in some way connects her to the lover whom she is no longer able to see, whom she will never see again. When death comes, no one even remotely suspects a crime; the young widower’s pain is genuine, so much so that his relatives, concerned about his health, compel him to take an extended trip; he chooses, among all possible places, perhaps as an antidote, to spend a season in Luzon. For forty years or more, he has never missed the performance of the piece he is hearing now huddled in the penumbra of a solitary box. As the music floats around him, he still perceives the poisoned breath of his unfaithful beloved, he sees her bare arms beautifully shaped, her too-white flesh that descends from her neck and rises, maddening, transparent, opulent, onto her breasts; and on that occasion, in which Torres scrutinizes him with keen attention, he seems to perceive at times a performance that he believed long forgotten. This was how his wife interpreted the Waltz, beginning with a somber languor, a great reluctance only at some point to gain strength, causing the performer's individuality to be felt, and revealing an ambiguous background that caused him to realize that “she knew,” that she was aware of everything, of the cause of her illness, but that in any case she was superior to him for the mere fact that she did not love him, for not even feigning to pretend, and that in the end she laughed because no matter what happened she had already lived the experience that was necessary to her and of which he would always be deprived, and in which he would—not then, not now—never catch up to her. And with every note he curses her again and curses life. He curses, in the most merciless and vulgar terms he can find, his cowardice for not having succumbed to the poison as well, for having survived her for years and years that have been a mere simulacrum. This is why the gaunt expression of the old man who contemplates the pianist is charged with voluptuousness and another charged equally with hate. The erotic does of the waltz seems to crystallize in the rigidity of the old man's face, more ominously still because of its tie to memories of something that once had to do with love. Manuel Torres, the narrator (and here Guillermo proves himself again to be scholar), recalls that this piece, composed by Liszt during his stay in Weimar, is a commentary on the scene in which Faustus and Mephistopheles enter a tavern and the violin of Mephistopheles hastens the villagers into a kind of amorous hysteria. Gunther Prey plays it at that moment with such intense perversity that the living corpse once again perceives around him the putrescent mixture of perfumes, medicines, and whiff of confinement emitted from the dying woman’s room the last time she could still walk to the piano.

The ovation is effusive. The pianist leaps to his feet, his temples drenched with sweat. It is here that Torres points out that when he first heard him in Paris, his wife commented that his tense, soaked face made her think of a young faun who had just made love. At the moment when Prey stands in front of the audience and receives the applause, the electricity disappears from his muscles, the intensity is lost, his arrogance softens, and he almost seems to become a chorus dancer from some rather ambiguous nightclub. The writer raises his eyes once more and sees that the box that was for him the true stage that night is now empty.

During the intermission he discovers the old man in a corner of the vestibule, surrounded by a group of people who listen to him with an attitude of absolute fealty. A photographer approaches, a flash discharges; then the personage disappears furtively. Torres had time to ask an usheress who was watching the scene with delight who the individual was, and upon hearing the name, pronounced with unctuous devotion and not without certain contempt for his ignorance, he was surprised that he had not recognized it before. It’s an eminent orchestra conductor whose photograph he has seen countless times in the press and on the cover of dozens of albums. It was he, he was told on that occasion in Paris, who discovered the pianist, who supported him vigorously in the international contest that launched him to fame. At the time they a boy of eighteen or nineteen and a man of fifty-something, a true master of the world in the fullness of his career. His despotism, his arbitrariness, his whims made him unpleasant to some, but these traits increased his popularity considerably. “These ruins you see,” he mutters, and he immediately resents the appearance of such a cliché in his consciousness. The narrator mentally does the math; the pianist must be thirty or thirty-two years old, although he looked younger, and the old conductor, whom an accident that was never fully explained caused him to retire from the podium, was nearing seventy, but looked to be much older.

The second half of the concert was about to begin. The narrator returns to his position, tries to pay attention only to the music, the box no longer interests him, the situation has been stripped of all pathos, it has become, despite the social prestige that surrounds the persons involved, their artistic importance, a mere private and suddenly anodyne affair. Reality has destroyed all the mystery that for him possessed the kind of dialogue that music established between the stage and the box. The eventual questions transform into an unbearable realism because he knows who the protagonists are and the possible relationship between them. Had the difference in age created infernos with no exit, delusions of possession, labyrinths of snares, and abject lies? he asks himself. And the accident in Morocco that the press spoke so much of, what was it really about? Everything now moves within the realm of hushed gossip and facile moralizing. Reality, apparently, so they say, is rich in low blows, not great deeds. The body, it is true, can make everything regrettable. Something shameful, embarrassing, the feeling of snooping through a keyhole prevents him from raising his head to contemplate the old man, and he finds Prey’s Chopin boring, wrong, timid. Had he been in a less visible place, he would have left the hall.

She closes the magazine and turns off the light. She tries to sleep. She senses how much she must have disappoint him, with the sense of reality she has wanted to impart on his life and how old age no longer allows him to build the scaffolding necessary to live creatively. For her the most interesting part began at the point where her husband closed the story. She thinks that for the first time she understands why he writes so little, why he suffers from neurasthenia and depression. She thinks or believes she thinks about reality and almost feels dizzy. What is it? Is it in that compartment that her sister thought it a whim to reserve, since, according to her, she could travel with equal comfort in a simple berth, or in the lecture she has to review about the Suprematists, or in her dogs that wait for her and which she would like to bathe this week? Why, whatever it was, is it not unsatisfactory to him and, instead, has transformed him into a dry, surly, and bitter man? She hears high-flown words spinning in her brain as if trying to find a outlet or the proper connection, but the pill has already begun to produce its effects. She tries to recall a musical phrase by Liszt to no success. Weary, lost in a torpor that is not at all unpleasant, she gradually falls asleep.

Moscow, June 1979

Translated by George Henson


LALT No. 5
Number 5

LALT No. 5 features powerful literary voices from across Latin America, including dossiers of essential writers Sergio Pitol and Victoria de Stefano, a special selection of Latin American chronicles curated by Felipe Restrepo Pombo, and a moving collection of trilingual poems by Mapuche poet Liliana Ancalao.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note


Featured Author: Sergio Pitol

Dossier: Victoria de Stefano

Latin American Science Fiction

Indigenous Literature

Latin American Chronicle




Nota Bene